Making Sense of the Complicated World of Natural Products
Written by Chris Thonis
In a perfect world, every product we buy would be safe from harmful chemicals, promote social responsibility and be made sustainably. The word “organic” would be irrelevant because nothing could be grown through any other means. Household cleaners would derive strictly from plants and every toy, cosmetic and plastic would remain unquestionably free of neurotoxins or endocrine-disrupting chemicals like BPA and phthalates.
Sadly, we do not live in a perfect world. Products as harmless as rice and baby food have been found to contain lead, known carcinogens continue to show up in everything from our clothing to shower curtains and plastic toys, and the manufacturing of genetically modified food, is being linked directly to obesity and the rapid decline of honeybee colonies in North America.
Throw in an endless stream of conflicting studies about proper nutrition and a proven correlation between overconsumption and environmental destruction and you’ve got a consumer base that is more overwhelmed and anxious about the products they buy than ever before.
The result has been a renewed movement toward natural living; a ballooning $91B industry led by thousands of passionate entrepreneurs and millions of consumers who aim to improve the wellbeing of themselves and the planet through better, cleaner products.
But rapid growth has not come without its problems.
Greater transparency and awareness about food production methods and sustainability issues for example has led to an influx of more than 200 “eco-labels,” which, without any harmony between standards, is doing more to confuse the consumers than educate them.
In addition, more business means more competition, and as the natural living industry nears saturation, merchants are having a harder time standing out from the crowd, while consumers are finding themselves paralyzed by too many choices, not knowing who or what to trust.
Finding Some Clarity
AbesMarket.com founders Jon Polin and Richard Demb have long recognized the need for better cohesiveness in the natural living industry, and launched the natural and organic e-commerce company in 2009 to tackle the issue head on. Their goal: simplify the complexity of living a mindful, natural lifestyle.
Three years later, AbesMarket.com is making that mission a reality.
I sat down with both founders to find out more about what it has taken to bring the natural industry together, and what still needs to be done to ensure everyone is living better in the near future.
When you first started the company in 2009, what did the natural living industry look like, and how have things changed since?
Jon: Passion for the natural and organic spaces has always been strong, but in the past two years or so the industry has exploded. In my opinion we are nearing a tipping point. People are more concerned than ever about what they are bringing home to their families, and there are countless studies suggesting there is plenty to be concerned about. The result has been improvement across the natural living industry, especially with regards to product selection, improved packaging, and more affordable pricing.
In your opinion, why has the industry grown so quickly?
Richard: Awareness. The public is demanding cleaner products and healthier living and passionate entrepreneurs are answering that call. It helps that the social media driven 24/7 news cycle has created complete transparency within the retail industry. People have access to research like never before, and more and more studies about the health consequences of toxic chemical and pesticides are getting the front page treatment in mainstream media outlets.
The sheer magnitude of the natural and organic industry has become problematic in the sense that it is overwhelming the consumer with too much information. What is Abe’s doing to change that?
Jon: The industry is on information overload, and its flat out confusing everyone. That said, we are working our butts off to bring cohesion and clarity to the space in simple, fun ways. Two examples right off the bat would be our Qualities program and our Dishing Dirty campaign. Qualities help people sift through eco-labels by dietary and lifestyle attributes, and Dishing Dirty combines eye-catching visuals with quirky wit and startling statistics. Both are in place to cut through the noise, amplify the industry to the masses, and help people make better, more educated buying decisions.
What have you learned about the growing Abe’s Market community — what are they ultimately looking for?
Richard: We serve a deeply passionate customer base that is constantly seeking out as much information as they can about the industry. What ingredients do the products they buy contain? How is it made? Who is making it and why? We have designed certain features on the site to tackle these needs head on. Abe’s Qualities, for example, allows people to filter the site by particular natural dietary and lifestyle needs and educates the buyer about why these certain qualities are significant to them and the planet. We also just launched a new resource in Chicago called Abe’s Servicesto help people quickly find and book the best healthy living and green service experiences in the city.
You recently made content a focus of the website — what does merging content and commerce do for your customers?
Jon: Our customers aren’t looking to buy new products every day, so good content gives them something fun and exciting to keep coming back for, while helping them wrap their heads around a very complex industry. What is BPA? What are phthalates? Parabens? Why should I care? Content uniquely positions us to help our fans cut through the clutter, and allows us to interact, engage and educate in ways that can take their better living lifestyle a bit further. Its one more step forward in our path towards becoming a resource in the space rather than just an ecommerce site.
What are the biggest misconceptions about a green or natural lifestyle and products that support that ?
Richard: It’s funny…two ends of the spectrum exist when characterizing this space. On one hand you have people who think living naturally or green is strictly for the granola hippie type. Then you have the people who look at the industry as unaffordable and solely for the upper middle class. Neither of these viewpoints are true of course. The people who are passionate about this space have become so because they care deeply about what they are putting into their bodies, and what they are bringing home to their families. They may pay more of a premium, but in the grand scheme of things, its really not that much more than what they are spending already, and it ensures quality and safety.
What do you see Abe’s Market becoming. Where do you see it 5 or 10 years from now?
Jon: Living better is hard, but Abe’s is making it easier. Everything we do is aimed at super-serving the consumer, whether that means providing valuable information to help simplify their purchasing decision, connecting them with local services who share their values, or handpicking products to make sure everything they buy is better for them and their family. This is helping turn us into the webs standalone resource for better living.
Richard: Where do I see us in 5 to 10 years? As the overarching resource helping millions around the world live their absolute best.
Photo from Thinkstock